Don’t Debate Your Partner’s “Always” and “Never” Statements
How can you most reasonably respond to these so provocative, inflammatory words?
Posted Nov 23, 2020
However heated their arguments might become, couples are routinely advised by therapists to avoid addressing their partner with the incendiary words “always” and “never.” They stress that such absolutes are hyperbolic and over-generalized and invariably put the receiver on the defensive. And this counterproductive resistance by the recipient can lead to their presenting an also exaggerated disputation, unfortunately serving only to escalate the conflict. Or, if they’re afflicted with a shame-based or guilt-infused identity, it results in their feeling even worse about themselves. Or, if they’ve had as much as they can take, to their physically withdrawing from the conflictual situation entirely.
It’s undeniable that these two strongly disapproved-of terms won’t advance an adaptive resolution to the discord precipitating them. Instead, they’re likely to exacerbate the pair’s mutual distress. Still, it’s worth exploring how employing “always” and “never” in highly provocative situations may actually be inevitable—almost impossible to totally uproot. It’s also worthwhile to contemplate why these two pejorative classifications shouldn’t be taken literally, as well as the most optimal way to respond to them.
How can you best understand the paradoxically relative meaning of these two absolute terms?
To begin with, it’s key to realize that these derogatory designations are used rhetorically. In the moment, they may feel true to the speaker, but what’s really taking place is that they’re trying, in the most forceful, emphatic way they can, to accentuate what so troubles them about their partner’s behavior. Therefore, the question that needs to be deliberated upon is: “What’s really being communicated by the sender communicating their feelings via “always” and “never?"
Here are some representative contexts in which such absolutes are (all-too-frequently) employed:
- “You always go on and on and on, never letting me get a single word in edgewise.”
- “You never treat me like I’m important to you.”
- “You always interrupt me.”
- “You never really listen to me.”
- “You never take me anywhere.”
- “You never talk to our children in a caring, loving way.”
- “You never drive our kids to school, or help with their homework, always leaving it up to me—even when I’ve told you I’m completely overloaded.”
- “You always manage to get your way, and you never compromise with me.”
- “You never take out the garbage (or do the laundry, wash the dishes or put them in the sink, kiss me when you leave for or come home from work, go shopping with me, do what I want, ad infinitum).”
Do any of these complaints sound familiar? If you’re in a committed relationship, then no matter how much you know about “always” and “never” being taboo in couples communication, almost for certain you or your partner (or both of you) have at times—whether in exasperated disappointment or fuming anger—resorted to these absolutist terms.
As a caveat, there are some “never” and “always” statements that are literally accurate. For instance, your partner may never, despite your requests, have helped with the dishes or done the laundry. But in almost all cases, these terms are exaggerations designed to highlight a deeper truth not yet recognized or expressed.
That is, they usually can be seen as referring figuratively to something crucial to the speaker that requires examination. In an earlier, complementary post, I stated that “magnifying the truth about something doesn’t necessarily make it any less true”—which is to say, essentially true. However, ironically, the sender’s words may actually be revelatory.
Let’s consider from the above examples the one focused on listening (#4). The speaker’s deeper truth might be that the only time their partner seems tuned into them is when what they’re uttering is something personally favorable about them? Or that they introduced a topic the receiver has a particular, self-absorbed interest in?
Though not stated factually, the so-frustrated partner might be trying to make the point that when they’re talking about something that characterizes their interests alone, their partner appears bored, not in the slightest responsive to them. If this is true, it’s a serious grievance, and—if the relationship is to evolve beyond its currently distressed state—such an implied protest must be heeded.
In this context (and many others), beneath this poorly phrased accusation is an unmet need, which might be worded: “I need you to pay more attention to me and to hear and validate my point of view, especially when it differs from yours—not merely express your viewpoint and ignore or belittle my own.”
Moving to the second critical thing you must consider regarding these two desperation-inspired terms:
How can you best respond when you’re barraged by your partner’s “always” and “never” statements?
When you’re feeling accused by your partner, it’s tremendously tempting to respond in kind or to refuse to engage with them at all. But counter-attacking or abandoning your partner won’t solve anything; it will only make things worse.
If, therefore, you’re feeling defensive, can you ask yourself why you’re giving your partner that much authority over you when you know (or half-know) they’re distortedly magnifying the situation? Rather than react by attacking them in turn to alleviate the anxiety they’ve triggered in you, can you examine what, still unresolved from your past, is causing your perturbation? Or if you’re an inveterate people-pleaser, might you want to query yourself about the origins of your feeling so responsible for their feelings—which may have originated far less from your behavior than their own troubled past (particularly if they’re afflicted with a Cluster-B personality disorder)?
As strange as it may seem to you, it’s also possible that you’re now feeling pretty much the same invalidation or aspersion as your accuser—that both of you are jostling for a way to reduce your present upset through a rationalization conveniently transferring blame onto the other. But it can’t be emphasized enough that if you’re the recipient of an “always” or “never” statement, the first thing to consider is the futility of trying to argue your partner out of their verbally violent state.
People who are really, really angry simply aren’t able to take in a point of view that's opposed to their own. If you want your partner to calm down and reevaluate what they’ve accused you of, what’s required is that you first diligently listen to them, rather than find fault with them because what they’re saying isn’t literally accurate or justified.
What do you do?
I’ve already mentioned the primal importance of giving them your undivided attention—and with as much compassion as you can summon. There are, however, additional ways of calming them down (unless, again, they have a personality disorder that renders them unreachable).
If you can move beyond your immediate annoyance by calming yourself down, it’s also wise, more objectively, to consider whether what they’re so provocatively saying does contain some partial truth. Even if you can’t agree with their words because they’re so extreme, do they at least have some validity? For if you can begin your response by validating a part of what they’re claiming, that’s likely to lessen the intensity of their anger. You don’t have to agree with everything they’re saying, but giving them the message that you can see where they’re coming from and that it does make logical sense to you, may well be sufficient for them to largely regain control of their inflated emotions.
Three other tactics that, if necessary, might be appropriately called upon are well summarized by one website’s entry on “always” and “never” statements:
- "Try to see past the questionable “facts” to understand the feeling that is being communicated" [i.e., the emotional meaning of their words].
- "Share your experience with a trusted confidant or a therapist who can help you to see the gray between the black and white" [i.e., the relative, not absolute, truth of their message].
- "Remove yourself and any children from any conversation which becomes verbally abusive or if a person refuses to stop talking after you have asked them" [although be very careful about cutting them off if allowing them to speak their piece will help them calm down and, as a result, be more willing to receive your (scrupulously measured) response to them].
Never forget that when your partner employs a blanket statement that’s clearly exaggerated, it’s mainly to get their point across so strongly that it can’t possibly be missed. Yes, it may seem terribly distorted or unfair to you. But if you can appreciate it as a generalization and not take their words as representing the unvarnished truth, you can reduce your own self-defeating reactivity and circumvent further damage to the relationship.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.